Mixed Reviews on BPM Conferences

Scott Francis
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This isn’t particular or specific to the world of BPM conferences – there’s a general “conference malaise” going on – in which only the “best”  conferences are really tearing it up. Outside of the BPM world, its clear that conferences like SXSW in Austin are doing just fine (and did just fine last year too, by the way).  Record attendance and a record number of panels and bands and acts is just the norm at SXSW these days (conference starts today). But in the world of BPM, 2009 was tough for conferences, when the expectation was that people would still be attending BPM conferences due to how applicable they are to everyone’s business.  Several vendors postponed their conferences or took them virtual (Lombardi’s Driven), but the ones who waited until the fall (Appian) benefited from the beginning of the rebound in businesses planning for the future rather than businesses just living in fear of the next shoe dropping. Sandy Kemsley has pointed out this problem with BPM conferences several times, as has Theo Priestley, and we’ve chimed in as well on the topic.  Some fresh perspectives:
  • Sandy points out that 2010 looks like a rebound year for conferences.  We’ll see – Gartner’s BPM summit is in March in Las Vegas, and IBM’s “Impact” is in May – good test cases of the demand for these conferences.  Word from the London Gartner summit implied that attendance was low?  (I wasn’t there, so its second-hand to me).
  • Theo Priestley and Mike Gammage hypothesize that Gartner and IQPC could merge events by 2012 – which again sounds like weakness rather than strength to me.
  • Interestingly, Gammage was more encouraging about Gartner’s latest offering, while Jon Pyke’s contacts were not impressed.
Theo has a separate blog post, and while the bulk of it is about building community more broadly, at the end he makes a telling argument:
“When a sponsor at a BPM conference turns round and says he was perplexed at why there was such a low turnout given how important BPM has become according to what surveys seem to suggest the answer may be in the fact that we can’t even agree on what we’re telling clients in the first place. For a group that practices change we’re incredibly resistant to it ourselves…..”
I’ve said before and I’ll say it again: I think BPM conferences need to do a few things:
  1. Localize.  Have the conference closer to the bulk of your attendees, so that more people can come without travel costs.
  2. Face-to-Face.  Tele-presence and high-def video conferencing is great.  But a virtual conference is a broadcast medium.  If attendees want one-way communication they can read the book or watch the video after the fact.  If they want interaction, then you need physical presence to really encourage that.
  3. Respect budgets.  Don’t make cost of attendance a barrier – keep it reasonable. For anyone traveling, travel costs should dominate their total expenses, not registration costs.
  4. Crowd-source.  Leverage the community to arrive at the topics.  There’s been too much top-down sourcing of content at conferences, without soliciting feedback from potential and actual attendees.
  5. Narrow the focus. The narrower the focus, the more involved the people who attend can be.  People mistakenly think you have to broaden the audience to get more people – but the point isn’t MORE – the point is BETTER.  If the event is BETTER then you’ll get more value out of your investment of time and money.
We’ve followed this philosophy for bpmCamp and it was a great success for us – the feedback has been enormously positive, with a lot of interest in repeating the event next year.  But of course, our “unconference” was limited to 40 attendees – and its easier to organize around these principles when you keep the size of the conference smaller. Still, I think there are lessons to learn for those who would put on BPM-focused events, and the biggest one is:

It’s about the audience, not about the organizer.

For more information from bpmCamp, follow this link to our blog coverage of the bpmCamp event.  The element that I think is most crucial is the impromptu discussion that can happen in a more intimate setting.  Questions don’t wait for a microphone or a moderator – the hand goes up or the question is proposed and people can jump in and contribute.  I was really pleased with how this dynamic worked at bpmCamp and I hope we can reproduce this at other events.  I think 2010 will be a better year for conferences, but organizers need to keep in mind how to make these gatherings *more* valuable for attendees or they’re going to lose their attention next time.

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  • Localization can be a bit of a hard sell sometimes: conference organizers often like to highlight the destination as much as the conference (possibly a holdover from when people brought their families along). Personally, I can give a big pass on Orlando and Las Vegas for the rest of my life, since those are the two big conference cities in the US.

    I agree that conferences should be located where the people are, in order to minimize travel costs for a maximum number of people. New York is an obvious choice, with a population of over 8M, but we never see conferences there. Ditto Los Angeles, population 3.8M. As for Toronto, which has a city population of 2.5M and an urban area population of over 5M — making it the second largest metropolitan population in North America — it's never even on the radar for most US conference organizers except for dinky offshoots.

    Maybe someone needs to send the conference organizers some demographics?

  • sfrancis

    Sandy-
    Fair points- it helps if you can be “local” and sell “location” at the same time, but that isn't always possible (we were lucky with Stanford University assisting for bpmCamp). And doing conferences in Las Vegas is really cliche, but if you really need a LOT of space, there are more limited options.

    I think the reason NYC rarely gets conferences is because it is so expensive. For a smaller conference you can hope to get space donated by an educational institution or one of the interested parties in the conference – but space in NYC is incredibly tight.

    So, I don't think that you place the conference purely based on population size, but you find loci of interest in a topic and make the gathering happen nearby.

    Side Note, wolfram alpha has different statistics on metro area population numbers (http://www.wolframalpha.com/input/?i=new+york+c…) – behind NYC and LA, but with an estimate of over 6M in the metro area (wow!).

    They never do these conferences in Texas either, but Texas has more Fortune 500 headquarters than any other state in the US, and a lot of IT shops for fortune 500 companies are here or have significant operations here. Of course, San Antonio does get its share of conventions, just not so much in the IT realm.